Zimbabwean grandmothers transform mental health care globally | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 19, 2024

BY THE OPTIMIST DAILY EDITORIAL TEAM

A deceptively simple yet revolutionary mental health therapy based on grandmothers’ wisdom and sensitivity took root in Zimbabwe. Now, it is being embraced around the world, including in the United States. 

A lifeline for despair

Tambudzai Tembo, 57, was devastated when her son, the family’s main breadwinner, was imprisoned. With limited mental health facilities in Zimbabwe, she saw no way out and even considered suicide. “I didn’t want to live anymore. People who saw me would think everything was okay. But inside, my head was spinning,” she recalls. But a simple wooden bench and a caring grandmother changed her life.

Older women, equipped with basic training in problem-solving therapy, sit on benches in quiet corners of community clinics, churches, poor neighborhoods, and universities, ready to listen and engage in one-on-one conversations. This technique revives an ancient Zimbabwean practice in which grandmothers served as pillars of knowledge during difficult times. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatry professor and founder of this initiative, notes, “Grandmothers are the custodians of local culture and wisdom. They are rooted in their communities.”

Global recognition and adoption

Chibanda’s revolutionary mental health solution has received international praise. In 2022, the McNulty Foundation in the United States awarded him a $150,000 prize for transforming mental healthcare. The Friendship Bench concept has spread across Vietnam, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is also in its early stages in London.

In New York City, the Friendship Bench has sparked new mental health programs. The city’s mental health plan, which was introduced last year, is “drawing inspiration” from the Friendship Bench to combat social isolation by installing orange benches throughout Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. HelpAge USA in Washington, D.C., is exploring the concept as part of the DC Grandparents for Mental Health campaign. Cindy Cox-Roman, president and CEO of HelpAge USA, reports that 20 grandmothers have received training in listening, empathizing, and empowering others. “Benches will be set up at places of worship, schools, and wellness centers in Washington’s low-income communities,” she says.

Overcoming barriers to mental health care

Mental health stigma and a lack of faith in medical systems frequently limit access to care. “People are hurting, and a grandmother can always make you feel better,” Cox-Roman emphasizes. The grandmothers, including 81-year-old Barbara Allen, aim to reduce stigma and promote open discussions about feelings. “We have so much wisdom in our older population and arms that can open. I reject ageism,” Allen says emphatically.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than one-fifth of all adults in the United States suffer from a mental illness. “The mental health crisis is real. Many clinicians have dropped out of the workforce,” notes Dr. Jehan El-Mayoumi of Georgetown University’s Rodham Institute. The Friendship Bench provides “someone you can trust, open up your heart to, that you can tell your deepest secrets,” El-Mayoumi adds.

A vision born out of tragedy

Chibanda’s inspiration for the Friendship Bench stemmed from personal sorrow. In 2005, a patient who couldn’t afford the $15 bus fare to see him decided to take her own life. “I realized that I needed to have a stronger presence in the community,” Chibanda says. He recruited 14 grandmothers near his Harare hospital and trained them in basic mental health support. Today, this network of over 2,000 grandmothers, funded by Zimbabwe’s health ministry and the World Health Organization, has grown. These grandmothers provided therapy to almost 200,000 Zimbabweans by 2023.

Siridzayi Dzukwa, one of these grandmothers, paid Tembo a follow-up visit at her house recently. Dzukwa, who helped Tembo avoid suicide, used a questionnaire to track her development. Tembo now sells vegetables to support herself and thanks Dzukwa for helping her find a new lease on life.

Changing attitudes about mental health

Dzukwa has become a well-known personality in her town, with many people coming to thank her or seek her assistance. “People are no longer ashamed or afraid of openly stopping us on the streets and ask us to talk,” according to her. “Mental health is no longer something to be ashamed of.”

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